|Mount Nittany as seen from the Bryce Jordan Center in University Park.|
- Attending a Penn State football game
- Getting ice cream at the Berkey Creamery
- Taking a picture at the Nittany Lion statue near Rec Hall
- Eating Grilled Stickies at Ye Olde College Diner
- Attending/participating in THON, etc.
One other item on many Penn Staters' lists is "hike Mount Nittany." Now, the other goals I mentioned are as simple as showing up somewhere, eating something or snapping a picture. That doesn't mean those accomplishments aren't worthwhile; they make for fantastic memories. Heck, eating and photography are two of my favorite hobbies.
|Eating and photography at the same time -- priceless.|
Not everyone makes the climb, but there are still hundreds -- if not thousands -- who do each year. I've hiked Mount Nittany several times and have seen a dozen or more people walking the trails at any given moment -- and even more during the semester. A dozen or more people might not sound like a significant number, but I've hiked many other mountains where I was the only person there all day.
In order for a mountain to draw a considerable crowd, it must provide scenic views, adequate trails, and/or a sense of pride/accomplishment to justify the exertion of climbing it. I believe Mount Nittany features all of these characteristics, and those are the reasons why people have made the trip up it for several decades and continue to do so this day.
|Let's go take a look around.|
In my opinion, the main reason Mount Nittany attracts so many hikers is because of its scenic overlooks. The mountain features seven of them, all of which are named:
- Mike Lynch
- Boalsburg and Mount Nittany Middle School
- Little Flat
- Penns Valley
- Tom Smyth
- Nittany Mall
I have been to all seven overlooks. Because of that, I will provide details about each one in case you're wondering if it's worth taking the time to visit all of them. I recommend that you do, but everyone has limits. Below is a picture of the Mount Nittany map that shows the trail system and the locations of the overlooks.
|Image courtesy of the Mount Nittany Conservancy|
To download a PDF version of the Mount Nittany trail map and brochure, click here.
Mike Lynch Overlook (Elevation: 1,940 feet)
The Mike Lynch Overlook is the first overlook you will visit if you hike the trail system counterclockwise. What's ironic is it's the hardest overlook to reach, but it's also the most popular. That's because the Mike Lynch Overlook offers an aerial view of a large portion of the Penn State University Park campus, including a bird's-eye view of two of PSU's most-iconic structures: Beaver Stadium and the Bryce Jordan Center.
|A zoomed-in shot of the Bryce Jordan Center (left with the white, oval roof) and Beaver Stadium, the second-largest football stadium in the U.S., only behind Michigan Stadium.|
The first time I saw the campus from this overlook was the most proud I felt to be a Penn State student. Seeing the massive sports facilities, academic buildings and dorms in "Happy Valley" (home to about 46,000 undergraduate students) all in one scene made me appreciate the opportunity I had to attend such a gorgeous and acclaimed university. The massive student loan debt I acquired has jaded my perspective a bit, but a few tens of thousands of dollars seem unimportant when you're nearly 2,000 feet above sea level and every building, person and issue feels so micro in scale.
Speaking of elevation, let's go back to what I said about the Mike Lynch Overlook being the "hardest" one to reach.
The overlook is the first one you reach if you complete the trail counterclockwise, so you would think that, because of the short distance, the walk there should require minimal effort. It's the exact opposite scenario, however. The hike up Mount Nittany starts with a steep climb. The distance between the beginning of the trail at the parking lot to the Mike Lynch Overlook is only 0.7 miles, but the elevation changes 600 vertical feet in that span.
For how often I walk and hike, I always lose my breath at the beginning of the Mount Nittany trail circuit. You should expect to be walking uphill for the first 15-20 minutes of your hike in this portion. That might not sound like a long time, but it's enough to make some people quit the Mount Nittany hike once they reach the Mike Lynch Overlook. The terrain makes the ascent tougher. At times, the trail here is muddy and covered in water, making it slick. It's rocky and also overrun by large roots in some spots, so you need to be observant to avoid tripping and injuring yourself.
Getting to the Mike Lynch Overlook can be a pain, but the view makes the heavy breathing, sweating and exhaustion worth hiking those 600 vertical feet. After this point, the trails are either flat or experience minor changes in elevation, but nothing to the extent of that first climb. The rest of the overlooks are much easier to reach.
Boalsburg and Mount Nittany Middle School Overlook
(Elevation: 1,840 feet)
The Boalsburg and Mount Nittany Middle School Overlook appears much more rural compared to the bustling scene of the University Park campus as seen from the Mike Lynch Overlook. The former provides a glimpse of Boalsburg, a village with a population of about 3,700, according to the 2010 census.
Most people outside of central Pennsylvania likely haven't heard of Boalsburg. In fact, many central Pa. residents might not know about Boalsburg, either, because the village is cast in the shadows of State College and Penn State University Park. But if you're intrigued by history, you should stop by Boalsburg sometime.
One historical fun fact about Boalsburg is it claims to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. That sounds like a joke, but it's not.
According to a website about Boalsburg, Memorial Day began in 1864, when three women placed flowers at the graves of two Civil War servicemen in the village's local cemetery. The women agreed they should return to the cemetery on the same day next year to lay flowers at the resting places of all the Civil War servicemen buried there, the website states. Word got out, and the following year, most of the village showed up to join the women in honoring the fallen.
It's a sweet story, but according to other historical websites, dozens of other towns in the United States claim to have started Memorial Day, as well. The federal government declared Waterloo, New York, as the official birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966, despite the fact that Waterloo began celebrating the day in May 1866 -- nearly two years after Boalsburg. You can choose who to believe, but Boalsburg still hosts a festival on Memorial Day each year that draws in nearly 25,000 people, according to the village website. That's a decent crowd considering it is almost seven times the normal population of Boalsburg.
Boalsburg also houses the Pennsylvania Military Museum, which includes displays, artifacts and information from numerous wars. The grounds of the museum feature tanks, military vehicles and battleship guns. I went to the museum in 2012 as a member of the Penn State History Roundtable club, and we had a jolly old time.
|Photo courtesy of Ian Weissman / You can tell we were the cool kids in college.|
The Boal Mansion Museum is the original home of the Boal family. The Boals would become quite influential in the area. David Boal is credited as the founder of the village and the mansion, according to the museum website. His son, George, ended up becoming one of the founders of Farmers High School in 1852, which later evolved into Penn State University. Theodore Davis Boal, who belonged to the fourth generation of the family, studied abroad in Europe and wound up marrying Mathilde de Lagarde, a French-Spanish aristocrat who was a descendant of famed explorer Christopher Columbus, according to the museum website.
Mathilde inherited a charming gift from her Aunt Victoria Columbus: the Columbus Chapel. According to the museum website, this chapel "is the most important Columbus collection on the North American continent." The chapel was part of Columbus Castle located in Asturias, Spain, and among its contents were an admiral's desk that belonged to Christopher Columbus, European oil paintings and statues originating between the 14th and 17th centuries, and two pieces of the "True Cross" gifted to the Columbus family in 1817 by the Bishop of Leon in Spain, according to the website. Theodore Davis Boal brought the Columbus Chapel to the United States and housed it in the Boal Mansion.
Yep, a chapel containing two alleged parts of the cross that Jesus Christ was crucified on wound up in a house in central Pennsylvania. And yet, Boalsburg still fails to show up on most people's radars. Unfortunately, I haven't visited the Boal Mansion Museum to confirm if those pieces of the True Cross are still located there, but the mansion and the Columbus Chapel are available for viewing. I plan to make a trip there soon.
That was one heck of a digression from what I was talking about, but let's get back to Mount Nittany. Now that you know more about the history of Boalsburg, you might have a better appreciation for the Boalsburg and Mount Nittany Middle School Overlook.
As far as Mount Nittany Middle School is concerned, I have little to share about it other than it's part of the State College Area School District. I know that the school district is well-acclaimed academically, and the middle school has a stupendous view of Mount Nittany, so it sounds like a fine school to me.
That's an underwhelming amount of information compared to what I just said about Boalsburg, but if I didn't write about Boalsburg, all I had to say about this overlook was "you can see a village and a school." It's better than nothing.
Little Flat Overlook / Penns Valley Overlook
(Elevations: 1,840 feet / 1,920 feet)
|Little Flat Overlook|
|Penns Valley Overlook|
Just because these overlooks resemble each other, that doesn't mean they're not worth seeing. Both overlooks are gorgeous; they provide views of fields, small communities and the rolling hilltops in Rothrock State Forest. One neat feature in late autumn is when Tussey Mountain ski resort begins producing artificial snow for the slopes. You'll fail to find a snowflake on Mount Nittany or in the valley below, but just look to the southeast, and you'll see bright, slim bands of white cascading down the opposing mountain.
|The Tussey Mountain ski resort began producing artificial snow during my one hike on Mount Nittany in the late fall. Other than a dusting on the hills behind the resort, snow was nonexistent anywhere in the valley.|
The Little Flat and Penns Valley overlooks are similar, but they're not boring by any means.
Tom Smyth Overlook (Elevation: 1,920 feet)
The Tom Smyth Overlook showcases miles of fields and mountains to the north and northwest between Bellefonte and Milesburg. Northeast of the overlook is the small town of Pleasant Gap: population about 2,900, according to the 2010 census. Unlike Boalsburg, I couldn't find much about Pleasant Gap other than it's a quaint valley town resting not far from the hustle and bustle of State College. Apparently, the founders of the town didn't marry into Ferdinand Magellan's family or create Veterans Day or anything else peculiar.
The overlook got its name from Tom Smyth, a longtime volunteer with the Mount Nittany Conservancy. The group appreciated Smyth's conservation efforts so much that it honored him with the "2011 Friend of the Mountain" award, according to the MNC website. One of his instrumental efforts was helping to fend off a gypsy moth outbreak in 2008-09. If you're not familiar with gypsy moths, you should know that they cause mass defoliation by consuming tons of leaves. Several years of defoliation can result in the deaths of trees and large sections of forest. The trees and their leaves are still standing on Mount Nittany today, so Smyth and the conservancy must have done something right to fight off the moths.
Smyth is listed as a director emeritus on the conservancy website, which denotes "nine or more years of volunteer board service." In 2011, the conservancy named the overlook after him, and a memorial rock and plaque were placed at the overlook in Smyth's honor. You can see this same stone today.
|The Tom Smyth Overlook memorial rock.|
Nittany Mall Overlook (Elevation: 2,020 feet)
|The Nittany Mall is the long, tan building in the center of the shot.|
Around the Nittany Mall are several restaurants and other stores. That's about all there is to say concerning the Nittany Mall Overlook. It's a cool view, though it's the least natural out of all the overlooks. If you need to plan a shopping spree, you can use this as a vantage point, I guess. Depending on which trail you take from here, this is either the last or second-to-last overlook you will see on Mount Nittany before returning to the parking lot.
Northwest Overlook (Elevation: 2,040 feet)
The Northwest Overlook is the final view on the tour of Mount Nittany. You might notice there's a lot more foliage in this shot compared to the other ones I used in this post. That's because I didn't visit this overlook during my first hike on Mount Nittany. In fact, I walked the mountain a few times without reaching the Northwest Overlook, so this photo was captured during a summer trip compared to the other ones that were taken during a late-autumn hike.
The reason I skipped this overlook several times was because it's kind of out of the way compared to the rest of them. The Northwest Overlook is on the "peak" of Mount Nittany. Out of all the overlooks, Northwest is the highest in elevation at 2,040 feet above sea level. I wanted to visit Northwest to say that I was at the highest point on Mount Nittany. It sounds impressive at first until you realize the Nittany Mall Overlook's elevation is 2,020 feet, which means there's only a difference of 20 vertical feet between the two. That's why I didn't rush to see the Northwest Overlook the first few times I hiked the mountain.
To reach it, you have to walk a trail that follows the ridge of the mountain, which cuts through the middle of the trail system. It ends up taking you back to the area by the Mike Lynch Overlook, and to reach the bottom of the mountain, you would have to descend the steep trail that you climbed in the beginning. From the Nittany Mall Overlook, that's about a 1.5-mile trip. On the other hand, there's another trail that descends the mountain at a much-less steep decline from the Nittany Mall Overlook that's also more direct, and it's only 1 mile in distance. What I'm saying is the Northwest Overlook is kind of an inconvenience.
I do regret not seeing it sooner, though. Because of the elevation, the view from the overlook is picturesque with miles of valleys and mountains to gander at. I wish I had stopped by the Northwest Overlook in fall or winter, however, because the trees do obscure the view a bit. And although it's out of the way, the trail to reach the overlook is quite level and easy to walk. Upon reaching the Northwest Overlook, I felt a sense of pride when I could officially say that I saw every overlook and hiked to the highest accessible point of Mount Nittany.
That concludes the tour of the overlooks. I might have went overboard with summarizing each one, but it's something I wanted to do because when I looked online, I failed to find a source that described every view. Not everyone is going to visit all seven overlooks, and that's fine. But some people might want to see what they're missing out on, and it may persuade someone who wasn't going to hike to all seven overlooks to make an attempt. If you don't visit Mount Nittany, you can at least say you took a virtual tour of it from your couch or desk.
The trail system on Mount Nittany is simple for the most part, especially if you're carrying the map shown above. The Mount Nittany Conservancy is good about having maps in stock at the parking lot at the bottom of the mountain, though they do run out on occasion. If you want to be prepared in case the latter happens, you can download the official map and brochure online. To download a PDF version of the Mount Nittany trail map and brochure, click here.
Likewise, the conservancy has signs on the trails, including ones with the numerical stations, so as long as you can count from one to 11, you should survive. All you need to remember is Station 1, which is close to the parking lot.
There are two main trails on the mountain: the Blue Trail and the White Trail. Trail blazes on the trees help keep you on course, which are either blue, white, or blue/white in sections where the two trails overlap.
|If God isn't a Penn State fan, then why do the trees on Mount Nittany bleed blue and white?|
The disadvantage of the White Trail Loop is if you hike it, you will bypass all but the Mike Lynch and Northwest overlooks. Granted, Mike Lynch is the most scenic of the seven overlooks, so if you're content with seeing only the Penn State campus and the view from Northwest, then the White Loop might suit you.
The Blue Trail Loop will take you to every overlook except Northwest, so it is the more scenic of the two loops. From my experience, I recommend the Blue Trail Loop because of the overlooks, in addition to the fact that it isn't all that strenuous. The most-difficult portion of the hike is the initial climb from the parking lot. If you plan to visit the Mike Lynch Overlook first, you won't be able to avoid this part. The White and Blue trails take the same path to get there, so you're going to feel some exhaustion from the start. You could go in reverse and take the Blue Trail to the Nittany Mall Overlook first, though that means it's going to take you much longer to reach Mike Lynch.
Like I said earlier in this post, once you reach the first overlook, you will have an easy walk from there. The elevation change is minor between the overlooks. The factor to keep in mind is how much time you're willing to spend on the mountain. The Blue Trail Loop takes me about two hours to complete, and that's at a brisk pace. That's not including how much time you spend at each overlook, so now you're looking at anywhere between two-and-a-half and three hours round-trip. I've never done just the White Trail Loop, so I'm unsure of how much time you would save.
My final verdict: If you want the best views and the most-rewarding experience, you should take the Blue Trail Loop. If you are short on time and aren't concerned about seeing every overlook, then you are better suited for the White Trail Loop.
I've mentioned the length and the elevation of the trails but haven't touched upon their physical conditions. Like any other path in the woods, the Blue and White trails are subject to change. The first climb from the parking lot to the Mike Lynch Overlook is tough because of the significant change in elevation, but that's not the only reason why it's challenging. This portion of the trail is rocky.
|Add moss and snow, and you get a natural (and deadly) slip-and-slide.|
In addition, because this part of the trail is on a slope, it is often covered in runoff water. Moist rocks and roots are even more dangerous than dry ones. The trails on Mount Nittany are all dirt paths, so you can count on there being mud during wet seasons like spring. Be mindful of damp leaves in the fall and snow in the wintertime, as well.
If you decide to go in reverse and take the Blue Trail toward the Nittany Mall Overlook, you should know that all these same conditions apply. The one exception is this part of the Blue Trail is rockier than the White Trail to the Mike Lynch Overlook. In some parts, there are more rocks than trail.
|Where did the trail go?|
The trails are well-maintained in the sense that there isn't much grass or overgrown weeds on them. This is great because high grass means increased exposure to ticks. I'm sure you've heard of ticks before, but Pennsylvania is facing an infestation of them. An article in Philadelphia Magazine stated that the deer tick can now be found in all 67 counties in the state. A tick bite can transmit Lyme disease, which, if ignored, can result in severe neurological and cognitive damage. Lyme disease has gotten so bad in Pennsylvania that the commonwealth was the leader in the nation for confirmed Lyme disease cases in 2016, according to Philadelphia Magazine. Ticks love high grass, so I find myself enjoying dirt trails more now than ever before. Mount Nittany's trails are mostly free of high grass, and they're wide enough where you won't have to resort to walking through brush to access certain areas.
Overall, the trails on Mount Nittany are some of the best I've seen anywhere, and they're suitable for hikers of any experience level.
Sense of pride
|The Penn State Nittany Lion logo on Beaver Stadium|
I know Mount Nittany is a "hill" compared to mountains in the Rockies or the Himalayas or wherever, but for me, elevation doesn't matter much as long as the mountain gives me spectacular views and a challenge. If I feel a sense of pride after completing it, I'm content.
I've hiked several mountains in Pennsylvania, and Mount Nittany is one of the best in the state, in my opinion. It has more scenic overlooks than most of them. It features some of the most-accessible trails I've walked on. It holds a special place in so many people's hearts, including my own.
The reason Mount Nittany remains gorgeous today is because it attracted groups of people who felt it was something so unique that it deserved preservation. According to the Mount Nittany Conservancy, the effort to maintain the mountain started in 1945 when the Lion's Paw Alumni Association saved 525 acres of the mountain from lumbering. Attempts by the lumber industry to get more trees continued, so the association formed the Mount Nittany Conservancy in 1981 to acquire more land. The MNC has been able to gain 300 more acres of land through purchases and donations since then.
The conservancy manages the acreage owned by both the MNC and the Lion's Paw Alumni Association, according to the MNC. Both organizations help to maintain the trails and overlooks, perform cleanups and spray for gypsy moths, according to the MNC.
|The Mount Nittany Conservancy and the Lion's Paw Alumni Association address issues on Mount Nittany such as erosion at the Mike Lynch Overlook.|
|This is what the erosion looked like at the Mike Lynch Overlook a few years ago.|
|Log barriers were constructed to address eroding portions of the Mike Lynch Overlook.|
So why is there so much pride for this small mountain outside of a major college town?
The most likely answer is it's one of the oldest landmarks and the first "Nittany" in the area. Penn State and the State College area have multiple "Nittany" symbols: the university's Nittany Lion logo; the Nittany Lion football team; the Nittany Lion mascot; the Nittany Lion statue; the Nittany Mall; the Nittany Lion Inn and Mount Nittany Medical Center, to name a few. All of those other "Nittanys" haven't been around nearly as long as Mount Nittany, though. That mountain has been in existence for millions of years -- long before the university, the mall, the inn and the hospital were even a thought -- and it will be around for many years after all those places are no longer standing.
Mount Nittany is the first "Nittany" symbol. The origin of the word "Nittany" is a bit murky, but according to Penn State, it likely came from a Native American term meaning "single mountain." The first settlers in the area in the 1700s used the phrase -- or a variation of it -- to refer to the nearby mountain as "Nittany Mountain," according to PSU.
"Nittany" would later become synonymous with just about everything at Penn State, but Mount Nittany remains "the" original symbol of pride in the community. And as long as groups are willing to continue preservation efforts on Mount Nittany, it will remain a "symbol of our pride" for a long time.
I hope my explanation on the mountain's pride did it justice, but I'll end this post with the words of someone who was much more familiar with Mount Nittany than I was: Mike Lynch. You've seen his name dozens of times already because the mountain's most-popular overlook is named after him.
Lynch was a native of Somerset County, a Penn State alumnus and eventually a university employee. According to the conservancy, Lynch used to hike Mount Nittany before there was a formal organization that maintained it. He helped with conserving the mountain by conducting cleanups and even going as far as having a group bring "hundreds" of saplings up the mountain and planting them each year to help more trees grow in an area that was a shale pit at the time, according to the MNC.
Lynch adored Mount Nittany so much that he wrote a poem about it, which I found on the conservancy website. Here's Mr. Lynch's words describing what Mount Nittany meant to him.
by Mike Lynch
by Mike Lynch
Across the silent valley stands our Mountain old and strong,
Part of our college heritage in story and in song.Through all the natural seasons, we watch her change her face,
Shedding the white of winter to green with gentle grace.In the heat of the summer, she grows new leaves and wood,
In the golden glow of autumn, her beauty is understood.What is it about this Mountain, with rugged rocks and rills,
That gives we Penn Staters a thousand prideful thrills.It’s a sense of belonging to a school that’s part of us,
In the annals of our lives, we mark it as a plus.Today, we pledge our loyalty to our Mountain and Old State,
By doing this, we join our founders, strong and great.